Design Domination Podcast Episode #177: Big Clients versus Small Clients

A lot of designers think having big clients is the key to making more money in their creative business. But that is not the case, and there are many pros and cons to working with them. Find out the advantages and disadvantages to working with big clients versus small clients and which ones you should work with.


I decided to talk about this topic of big versus small clients because I always hear a lot of designers saying, “I just need a couple big clients to make what I want per month” or “If only I could work with such and such [ insert big company names here ].”

Hey, I used to think the same way earlier on in my career.

Having worked with mostly smaller nonprofits but also some large organizations as well, I can tell you there are definitely pros and cons to working with big and small clients. So I am going to get into some of them. Some of them may surprise you.

Keep in mind these are generalizations from my own experience. But there are exceptions to everything.

Advantages of Working With Big Clients

Prestige of a Big-name Client

The first pro of working with a big client is prestige. If you can tell a prospective client or show on your website a testimonial or the logo of a big-name company, it instantly impresses them. It also builds trust with them. They will think, “Oh, well, if a company as big as Target worked with this designer, they must be great.”

They may also think it’s cool for them to work with you for their own bragging rights. “We worked with a designer who worked for Disney,” for example.

So prestige and trust come from working with well-known companies. That can help you not only attract more clients but more of the same types of clients.

Client Organization

Another advantage to working with larger businesses is that they may be more organized. Because they might have several departments with certain people responsible for handling different things and your main point of contact isn’t tasked with a million different duties, they may be more organized and focused.

Client Budgets

Larger clients usually have larger budgets to work with. They may also expect to pay more than a smaller organization would.

Disadvantages of Working With Big Clients

Red Tape

The fact that larger clients may be more structured and have several departments also means more red tape to get through.

Your main contact is likely not the decision maker to approve the estimate or the work. Multiple people from different departments may need to approve content, the design, review edits, etc.

That makes it harder for you to communicate, because this goes beyond your main point of contact. There are people you don’t usually have access to to present your design.

Your main contact—not you—is the one going back and explaining your design, and they may not do that at all or they may not share what you told them about the design.

That could make it harder to get the design approved.

Client Expectations

Larger clients may have higher expectations than smaller clients. Not always but sometimes.

Because there may be quite a few people from different departments reviewing and approving things, they may request a ton of revisions.

But the other thing is that they may treat you like a peon. I’ve got a story for this actually.

I will never forget how this woman I spoke with from a large and well-known organization spoke to me. She had been referred by a colleague within the organization that I had worked with, which had been one of the biggest nightmare jobs of my entire career.

We got on a call and I started asking questions about the project, so that I could understand more about it and give her an estimate.

In the middle of this, she interrupted me and asked in a snotty tone, “Who’s interviewing who here?”

To say I was shocked would be an understatement. I tried to explain to her that I needed to find out about the project in order to give her an estimate.

Then she proceeded to tell me that I should be grateful at the opportunity to do work for such an organization.

Now I wasn’t just shocked. I was actually disgusted. I told her we would not be a good fit and hung up.

Client Payments

They may dictate contractual terms, including how long to pay you and when they’re going to pay you.

So it could take longer to get paid.

Control

Larger clients also usually means you have less control.

For instance, they may require that you sign their contract, instead of using yours. That might entail you getting a lawyer to review the contract because they have all these different things in there that yours doesn’t include and maybe you don’t know what they mean.

Not only that, but a lot of times they will come to you with after they’ve already what they think needs to be done. They are not so much looking for your input, just for you to be the doer, the order taker.

Another things is that managing the project could be more difficult. You don’t have access to other people on their end, or they may have certain processes in place that deviate from your typical ones.

In one particular case with a large and well-known organization (the same nightmare job, the person that referred the other bad person), the main point of contact was switched out no fewer than six times. I kid you not.

The project was a huge nightmare, like I said.

I had to explain things all over again to every new contact. I was done with this job.

A project that was supposed to be pending approval was getting new edits from the new contact.

It was never ending. It was horrible.

I was repeatedly ask to provide estimates for other projects that were part of this one large project. Sounds great, right?

But they nitpicked over so many details that it was like I spent just as much time estimating as working on the projects.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, at one point they asked me to cancel one of the smaller projects.

At this point, the project became so difficult for me to manage that at first I was like OK, but then later I realized, I had forgotten we had already finished that project!

Just thinking about it all over again stresses me out! It was just so awful.

Now, on the flip side, because you work with a larger company, you may actually give up some of your control. For example, you might allow them to get away with breaking your rules because they are a big company and you have stars in your eyes or you might feel intimidated by them.

Pros of Working With Small Clients

Now let’s get into the advantages of working with small clients.

Client Budget

Sometimes small clients actually have bigger budgets than you might think.

A lot of times, what happens is that a nonprofit will get funding from a federal grant, and they have to use the full amount of the project. Sometimes those grants can be small, but a lot of times, they’re actually a pretty decent budget.

On the flip side, there are plenty of large clients that are unwilling to pay much at all for quality work, or who dictate how much they’re willing to pay.

Control

Another pro when working with smaller clients is you have much more control—over everything:

  • project management
  • the design
  • billing

There are fewer cooks in the kitchen. But you also don’t usually need to deviate from your process and how you manage the project and payment terms.

Inspiration

You may get joy or be inspired from helping smaller clients to succeed.

There may be nonprofits out there you want to help because you support their mission and you feel good about helping them.

Amount of Work

They may have fewer staff members, so they rely on you for more projects, not just one but long term. I’ve had that a lot throughout my career.

Client Relationship Management

With smaller clients, there are way fewer people involved. A lot of the times you may work one on one with your point of contact.

This also makes it easier to get to know that person, and they get to know you. That can also make the work more enjoyable.

I have some great relationships with so many people from both small and larger organizations, despite my previous stories.

You are also able to provide a more personalized service and get to know their business better, which in turn helps them.

Respect

Another pro is that they may show you more respect. Not always but sometimes.

I’ve got plenty of stories from both sides of the fence on that.

But smaller clients may be more likely to see you as the trusted expert, especially when they don’t have anyone doing design in-house, for instance. So you might be the only designer they’re working with.

They may be more willing to listen to any recommendations you make to help them.

Cons of Working With Small Clients

They may not have a large budget or they might be driven by price, and may not be looking for quality

Amount of Work

They might not have a lot of work for you. I mean, they could go either way, they could have a ton of work for you, and they just want to work with you and have you handle all of their design needs or they could have just some one-off projects, so they don’t have a lot of recurring and ongoing projects for you to do.

Who Is Your Ideal Client?

So now you may be wondering should I work with small or large clients? You definitely don’t have to choose one or the other. You can certainly have a mix of small and large clients in your client base.

But it is important to understand the differences of working with one versus the other. You may or may not be willing to work a certain way or deviate from your processes or give up some control. That’s OK. Do what works for you.

I have worked directly with mostly smaller nonprofits, a few large ones and some government agencies. I have also worked indirectly with some very large corporations through small marketing or design agencies.

I like working through other agencies too, because they are doing all the project management and communication and dealing with any red tape. I’m not! I’m just getting the work done. I can’t go put on my website the logos of those large corporations, but I did do the work as a subcontractor. So there’s that.

Also, because of the nature of the work I focus on—accessibility work—I find that both types of clients need it but that I don’t have to deal with some of the control issues.

Something else to keep in mind is that you never want to rely on a couple of big clients. I talked about the risks of having one or two big clients in another episode, episode 150 The Risks of Having One Big Client (Gorilla Client). Be sure to check that out.

If you do accessibility work, also check out episode 171 on Where to Find Clients Needing Accessibility Services.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Join the Design Domination Community

Hang out and get advice from designers of all levels in our welcoming community of graphic designers on Facebook.

Join the group